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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Issues Draft Regulations to Prevent Avoidable Damage from Non-Federal Oil and Gas Drilling on National Wildlife Refuges

Reporter contact: Haley McKey, 202-772-0247, hmckey@defenders.org

WASHINGTON (December 10, 2015)– Today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service) issued long-awaited draft rules for regulating non-federal oil and gas development within units of the National Wildlife Refuge System. The new rules would clarify and expand upon existing and woefully inadequate wildlife refuge regulations that have failed for decades to prevent irreparable and avoidable damage to refuge lands and wildlife resources from non-federal oil and gas activities. The virtually unregulated development of reserved mineral interests within the Refuge System has resulted in the drilling of thousands of oil and gas wells on more than 100 refuge units, pursuing fossil fuels in some of our nations’ most sensitive and vital wildlife habitats.  

The following is a statement from Jamie Rappaport Clark, President and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife:

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the administration have taken a critical step to ensure that, when non-federal oil and gas mineral interests are developed within a national wildlife refuge, the Service has adequate oversight and regulatory authority to prevent or minimize adverse impacts to refuge resources.

“As a result of past inadequate regulatory controls, many of our national wildlife refuges are littered with environmental hazards, including oil drums oozing chemical waste, abandoned, rusting storage tanks and rusted pipes and well heads. These shocking conditions have no place on any oil development site, let alone within a wildlife refuge.

“The proposed oil and gas regulations should now elevate oversight protection on wildlife refuges to a level already afforded national parks and national forests. We look forward to working with the Service to secure the strongest oversight rules possible for the National Wildlife Refuge System.”

Background: When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquires lands within the boundaries of a wildlife refuge, it often only purchases the rights to the surface estate, and not to the subsurface property interests as well. This has resulted in retained non-federal mineral rights underlying national wildlife refuges across the country. When those subsurface owners, mostly private entities, decide to develop their oil and gas interests within a refuge, the Service’s existing regulatory controls have proven to be grossly inadequate for minimizing adverse environmental effects to refuge resources.  The new oil and gas regulations proposed by the Service and the administration are designed to change that and provide wildlife refuges with regulatory authority that is similar to procedures that have protected national parks and national forests for decades.  

The National Wildlife Refuge System is the only network of federal lands dedicated specifically to wildlife conservation—and the largest system of its kind in the world. President Teddy Roosevelt established the first refuge in 1903 to protect birds from market hunting on a small island in Florida. The system has since grown to more than 560 refuges, covering over 150 million acres of land and waters in all 50 states, a number of U.S. territories and the western Pacific Ocean, providing essential habitat for America’s astounding diversity of wildlife. In addition to serving a vital role in conservation, the National Wildlife Refuge System supports innumerable recreational opportunities and generates tens of millions of dollars in local, sustainable economic activity.


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Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With more than 1.2 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit www.defenders.org.